»Empire« on and off-stage: A Conversation with Milo Rau

by Joseph Pearson

3 September 2016

»Come, we’re making coffee«, »Sit here with us«, »Would you like some grapes?«. Given the urgent and troubling content matter of »Empire« – going to Europe’s dark heart of identity, war, forced migration, and exile – I’m relieved by just how upbeat everyone is. The Milo Rau practice stage at the Schaubühne is welcoming, positive and constructive before the dress rehearsal; each seems at the other’s disposal.

On stage are some veterans of the acting world, whose testimonies are the basis of the documentary production: four figures, facing a camera, telling their own stories. The Jewish-Romanian actor Maia Morgenstern, the Greek Akillas Karazissis, and the Syrians Ramo Ali and Rami Khalaf are assisted by a youthful dramaturgical team. The tech crew, meanwhile, have the serious – but flexible and organic – collaborative energy of a start-up (except they are making art). I sense an unspoken understanding between the hipster couple on the laptop and the beautiful man on the ladder hovering somewhere close to the ceiling, as he makes delicate adjustments to the lighting. The director himself, still in his 30s, is now with the actors and instructs effortlessly in three languages: »Now, come onto stage more slowly. Plus doucement. Langsamer!« Everyone in the production seems to be from a different country – a microcosm for the communicative and functional Europe in which we could all live, but do not.

»If only Europe could work so well together!« I tell Rau, »It is a shame the audience cannot see this«.

He replies, »That’s absolutely true. The team has known each other for years. The piece is a melody played by four actors and five technicians. I try to reflect this on stage, even if there is just a monologue and the others are only listening. They are telling the story together. In the end, a fifth figure appears, which is the community of them. Theatre is not a solipsistic work, not like writing or dreaming, but it is dreaming and writing together. That is why I am doing theatre«.

I have interviewed Milo Rau before (in March 2015) for the first instalment of his »Europa Trilogy«, »The Civil Wars«, which examined the question of home-grown terrorism. As Rau explains, »In Civil Wars we asked: where are these boys going when they go off to Jihad? How is it to come home? When they come home, what they find is not what they expect. It is about losing home and a tradition. The theme of mother and father is dominant«.

Since then, Rau has brought two more instalments to the Schaubühne: »The Dark Ages«, focusing on civil conflict in former Yugoslavia, and »Compassion. The History of the Machine Gun«, exploring a European colonial experience, of international aid organisations operating during mass murder in Central Africa. Originally meant to be the finale »Compassion« – in a Classical sense – eventually became the satyr play. Satyr plays, often inserted after the second of three tragic plays presented for competition in ancient Athens, had the function of providing comic relief. But comedy, as such, in »Compassion«, is extremely dark. Instead, the play’s function can be thought of more abstractly, as an opportunity for meta-commentary on the Trilogy.

Rau explains, »In a way, Compassion became the satyr play because, on a meta-level, you are thinking about what it means to make confessions on stage. What does it mean to witness, to play yourself, to play a figure on stage? What is the difference between playing and just being? This is, I think, the main question of this trilogy«.

»Empire«, as the final part of the cycle, addresses a crisis (opportunity?) that could not be ignored, unfolding at precisely the moment that Rau’s trilogy was developed: that of refugees flooding into Europe. »Empire«, concerning itself with the question of flight and exile, turns to Classical models such as Medea; it examines the concept of homeland and the future (and tragedy) awaiting Europe.

Rau tells me, »In Empire, all these questions emerge on the highest level: who is looking at us when we are suffering? Is it Mother Mary? Is it Mohammed (who is the camera)? In the end, it becomes Tradition, ending with the question: what now? And the answer is: now begins the tragedy«.

Meanwhile, the themes from the first part of the Trilogy return, says Rau: »In Empire, the relation between children and parents seen from the parents’ perspective provides the last link. It is best to see all three plays together, with Compassion there behind as the meta-level. And then you have a picture of the Europa Trilogy«.

Those who have seen the previous instalments of the »Europa Trilogy«, and its satyr play, will recognise a consistent scale and style – Rau’s pieces are Wagnerian in scope but spare in their gestures. Rau limits himself by formal constraints, as the Danish »Dogma« film auteurs did. The stories are »real« (except in »Compassion« where several testimonies were woven together). After a confessional three weeks of the actors telling their own stories to one another, the dramaturges of »Empire« worked with the transcriptions, created a script, rewrote it numerous times, until a narrative of intertwined monologues emerged, spread over five acts. The form might be long, but there are restrictions that render the actors’ gestures minimal on-stage.

»I have some rules«, Rau tells me, »Everything told is true, from the actors’ lives. The camera acts as if it does not know who will speak next, following the voice. It would be better to have a professional cameraman, but it is always one of the actors. The stories follow an arithmetic logic. If you show events behind the stage, it has to be as if from the beginning of a film. And, of course, there are many more other restrictions, such as with light, that I impose on the piece«.

The relationship of the formal structure to politics is compelling. A question I often have of documentary theatre is: why should political discussion happen in the theatre, especially in the age of Facebook and digital media, when there are other (performative) venues for exchange? Is not theatre an anachronistic forum, in that it reaches many fewer people, and the audience, at first glance, appears to sit passively? But Rau provides one of the surest rebuttals to this line of thinking that I have heard, and it is related to the question of scale.

He says, »In my way of doing theatre, there is concentration, silence, and watching another person, which you normally do not do. It’s focused on listening, on something that seems very small in the beginning that gets bigger. I think this can happen in theatre. In a museum, it’s possible to leave after two minutes. But in theatre you are closed in. And, of course, in the Trilogy, theatre becomes a metaphor, of a public space where everyone is alone and together at the same time. This becomes a metaphor for European society, where you have a strange mélange of generations, stories, historical and political backgrounds. All this is what theatre is: a strange family that has to go through terrible times together. This is also what ancient theatre is about«.

Scale allows for questioning, and space becomes a vehicle for political interpretation. Rau’s International Institute of Political Murder proposes what it calls »an entirely new form of political art«. But theatre does not become a didactic place where the audience is taught, but rather a space in which explorations can occur.

»For me, political staging – political art – is when you create a space where everything that enters it becomes political. It is not that people are providing opinions, but it’s more a kind of container where you feel the emptiness, of, say, what is trauma. The problem is that when it becomes too personal, you lose the political. And when it becomes too political and cold, you lose the personal. I think the political is always at this moment of mimesis. It’s about finding the balance between public space and yourself. So it’s not psychological, but it is not also political. That’s why I call it political psychoanalysis: it’s what history made of you, and, at the same time, it’s also you«.

In the case of »Empire«, the personal is the actors’ lives: Maia Morgenstern, for example, is known for her film roles in Angelopoulos’s »Ulysses’ Gaze« and as Mary in Mel Gibson’s »Passion of the Christ«. She speaks clearly to a camera about her experience of living between identities, about her identity as a mother, as an actor. The space gains its interpretive function as the audience reconciles her particularities to the stories of the other actors – –of, say, Ramo Ali, who recounts fleeing Syria, because he was condemned for performing in a Kurdish theatre production. His home town Qamischili, the flashpoint of the Rojava conflict and location of massacre, was then bombarded, and his homecoming is explored in the piece, also using video material.

The actors, sitting in a cluttered kitchen set in Syria, have the camera fixed on their faces throughout, as they tell their stories. Projected, they appear both real and unreal. Perhaps this film technique provides the sense of altered reality necessary to conjure verisimilitude on the stage, because it confirms for us our knowledge that the world on-stage is not our world. It recognises that actors cannot be of »our world« if we wish to believe in them, even while we know the actors of »Empire« are, in fact, from our world: this is the conundrum of »documentary fiction«. The resulting sense of friction, of dissonance, is yet another aspect of attempting to reconcile the human – the Syrians’ refugee stories, for example, as they recount their lives – with a projected political vision.

I propose to Rau that we are dealing with the hermeneutic problem of the particular and the whole, and the quandary of not being able to see both at the same time. »We need a space where we can move between particulars and larger things – the personal and the political – where we can attempt to reconcile them«, I suggest.

»And this«, replies Milo Rau, »is the stage«.


Concept, Text and Direction: Milo Rau

Premiered on 8 September 2016